10,000 Monkeys Typing

How soon will it be before computers can write novels? In "Computers as Authors? Literary Luddites Unite!" (NYT) Daniel Akst says that "They are perfectly capable of nonfiction prose, and while the reputation of Henry James is not yet threatened, computers can even generate brief outbursts of fiction that are probably superior to what many humans could turn out – even those not in master of fine arts programs."

Fortunately, flesh-and-blood writers are nowhere near having to hang up their turtlenecks. When I called Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist whose research focuses on language and cognition, he pointed out that the human brain consists of 100 trillion synapses that are subjected to a lifetime of real-world experience. While it is conceivable that computers will eventually write novels, Dr. Pinker says, "I doubt they’d be very good novels by human standards."

Computers are just as subject as humans to Simon’s "bounded rationality." Computers cannot create narratives by using brute computational force to mindlessly try every alternative. It may be fun to think that 10,000 monkeys typing for 10,000 years will sooner or later randomly produce "Paradise Lost," but evidently this is no more plausible for silicon than simians. Computers don’t even play chess this way, Dr. Pinker told me, having noted elsewhere that the number of possible sentences of 20 words or less that the average person can understand is perhaps a hundred million trillion, or many times the number of seconds since the universe was born. "The possibilities boggle the mind very quickly," he says.

The article mentions Selmer Bringsjord and David Ferrucci’s Brutus 1 project (check out their paper "Artificial Intelligence and Literary Creativity" [pdf]) and Charles Callaway and James Lester’s StoryBook, a "narrative prose generator" (see these papers on natural language generation).


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